by Patty Berne, Executive Director of Sins Invalid supported by Stacey Milbern, Aurora Levins Morales and David Langstaff

 In recent years, on websites, on flyers and in informal conversations, I’ve witnessed people add the word “justice” onto virtually everything disability related — from disability services to advocacy to disability studies — while doing nothing to shift either process or end goal, thinking that the word change alone brings that work into alignment with Disability Justice.

Not so. What follows is a working draft definition of Disability Justice, a living document that will grow and change along with our emergent movement. It marks a point of departure rather than a destination. It is an invitation to those of us working on disability issues to continue to support one another to find a language as powerful and expansive as our movement’s vision.

I’d like to start off with a quote from Aurora Levins Morales’ book “Kindling”:

“There is no neutral body from which our bodies deviate. Society has written deep into each strand of tissue of every living person on earth. What it writes into the heart muscles of five star generals is distinct from what it writes in the pancreatic tissue and intestinal tracts of Black single mothers in Detroit, of Mexicana migrants in Fresno, but no body stands outside the consequences of injustice and inequality…What our bodies require in order to thrive, is what the world requires. If there is a map to get there, it can be found in the atlas of our skin and bone and blood, in the tracks of neurotransmitters and antibodies.”

Next Stage in Movement Evolution

Prior to disability rights, if people with disabilities were mistreated, there were no legal repercussions. Most public places weren’t accessible and it was expected disabled people would not participate in society. There was phenomenal and historic work done by disabled people and allies to develop disability rights in the U.S., and it had many successes in advancing a philosophy of independent living and opening possibilities for people with disabilities.  The US Disability Rights Movement established civil rights for people with disabilities. Like other movements, the current Disability Rights Movement includes advocacy organizations, service provision agencies, constituency led centers, membership-based national organizations, as well as cultural and academic spaces.

And, like many movements, it is contextualized within its time and left us with “cliff-hangers”: it is one strategy of many needed to combat ableism; it is single issue identity based; its leadership has historically centered white experiences; its framework leaves out other forms of oppression and the ways in which privilege is leveraged at differing times and for various purposes; it centers people with mobility impairments, marginalizing other forms of impairment. At its core, it centers people who can achieve rights and access through a legal or rights-based framework, which we know is not possible for many disabled people, or appropriate for all situations. The political strategy of the Disability Rights Movement relied on litigation and the establishment of a disability bureaucratic sector at the expense of developing a broad-based popular movement. Popular movements often begin by people developing political consciousness and naming their experiences. Rights-based strategies often address the symptoms of inequity but not the root. The root of disability oppression is ableism and we must work to understand it, combat it, and create alternative practices rooted in justice.

While a concrete and radical move forward toward justice for disabled people, the Disability Rights Movement simultaneously invisibilized the lives of peoples who lived at intersecting junctures of oppression – disabled people of color, immigrants with disabilities, queers with disabilities, trans and gender non-conforming people with disabilities, people with disabilities who are houseless, people with disabilities who are incarcerated, people with disabilities who have had their ancestral lands stolen, amongst others.

In response to this, in 2005, disabled activists of color, originally queer women of color incubated in progressive and radical movements that did not systematically address ableism – namely, myself and  Mia Mingus, soon to be joined by Leroy Moore, Stacey Milbern, Eli Clare and Sebastian Margaret – began discussing a “second wave” of disability rights and ultimately launched a framework we called Disability Justice.

Given the isolation enforced by ableism and classed boundaries, many of us have often found ourselves as agents of change within respective communities and isolated from in-person community with other disabled people of color or queer or gender non-conforming crips. Many of us have found “liberated zones” that celebrate our multiple identities online instead. In many ways, Disability Justice is a developing framework that some call a movement. We are still identifying the “we” – sometimes in fluid spaces and sometimes in each others’ hoped and spoken words, touching each other through the echoes of those we mentor close by.

Given this early historical snapshot, I assert that Disability Justice work is largely done by individuals within their respective settings, with Sins Invalid, the NYC-based Disability Justice Collective, Seattle’s Disability Justice Collective, and Vancouver’s Disability Justice Collective being notable exceptions. Some voices may emphasize a particular component of the framework over another, as can be expected in all early movement moments. However, what has been consistent across Disability Justice – and must remain so – is the leadership of disabled people of color and of queer and gender non-conforming disabled people.

Disability Justice activists, organizers, and cultural workers understand that able-bodied supremacy has been formed in relation to other systems of domination and exploitation. The histories of white supremacy and ableism are inextricably entwined, both forged in the crucible of colonial conquest and capitalist domination. One cannot look at the history of US slavery, the stealing of indigenous lands, and US imperialism without seeing the way that white supremacy leverages ableism to create a subjugated “other” that is deemed less worthy/abled/smart/capable. A single-issue civil rights framework is not enough to comprehend the full extent of ableism and how it operates in society. We cannot comprehend ableism without grasping its interrelations with heteropatriarchy, white supremacy, colonialism and capitalism. Each system benefits from extracting profits and status from the subjugated “other.” 500+ years of violence against black and brown communities includes 500+ years of bodies and minds deemed “dangerous” by being non-normative – again, not simply within able-bodied normativity, but within the violence of heteronormativity, white supremacy, and gender normativity, within which our various bodies and multiple communities have been deemed “deviant,” “unproductive,” and “invalid.”

A Disability Justice framework understands that all bodies are unique and essential, that all bodies have strengths and needs that must be met. We know that we are powerful not despite the complexities of our bodies, but because of them. We understand that all bodies are caught in these bindings of ability, race, gender, sexuality, class, nation state and imperialism, and that we cannot separate them. These are the positions from which we struggle. We are in a global system that is incompatible with life. There is no way stop a single gear in motion — we must dismantle this machine.

Disability Justice holds a vision born out of collective struggle, drawing upon the legacies of cultural and spiritual resistance within a thousand underground paths, igniting small persistent fires of rebellion in everyday life. Disabled people of the global majority — black and brown people — share common ground confronting and subverting colonial powers in our struggle for life and justice. There has always been resistance to all forms of oppression, as we know through our bones that there have simultaneously been disabled people visioning a world where we flourish, that values and celebrates us in all our myriad beauty.




Sins Invalid

Sins Invalid

Sins Invalid is a disability justice based performance project that celebrates artists with disabilities, centralizing artists of color and LGBTQ and gender-variant artists as communities who have been historically marginalized.  Led by disabled people of color, Sins Invalid’s performance work explores the themes of sexuality, embodiment and the disabled body, developing provocative work where paradigms of “normal” and “sexy” are challenged, offering instead a vision of beauty and sexuality inclusive of all bodies and 

communities. Creating high-quality artistic work as disabled artists of color and queer/gender non-confoming artists, we use cultural work as a medium for building within and across communities.  In our 10th year, Sins Invalid is seen as a thought leader in Disability Justice and continues to alter the cultural context in which people with disabilities are seen and experienced, nurturing an aesthetic vision in which all bodies are recognized as valuable and beautiful.